Until recently, for both the Russian public and the Russian expert community, Eritrea, a small country in the Horn of Africa, was one of the least known states in the world, and its mention in the media was in itself seen as a remarkable event. However, since March 2022, there has been an unprecedented increase in bilateral contacts between Moscow and Asmara. The two countries have exchanged three high-level diplomatic and ministerial visits in the past year and a half, including a visit to Moscow by Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh in April 2022, and a return visit to Asmara by his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov in January 2023. Moreover, at the end of May 2023, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki arrived in Moscow for the first time in his 30-year rule, and the Kremlin hosted talks between the two leaders. This striking transformation in relations between Russia and Eritrea needs to be examined in detail in order to determine whether the current trend towards rapprochement is a reflection of the two countries’ strategic interest in establishing a long-term alliance, or whether it should be seen merely as a recognition that their current agendas just happen to coincide.
Eritrea: the odd man out in a unipolar world
A former colony of Italy, Eritrea was incorporated into the federalized state of Ethiopia in 1952 in accordance with a UN decision. Ten years later, the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I abolished the federal system, which led to the beginning of Eritrea’s struggle for independence. After the fall of the Ethiopian empire in 1974, there was a period of intense armed resistance to the socialist Derg junta, which was finally defeated in a civil war in 1991. Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia was only officially proclaimed by referendum in 1993, making it one of the youngest members of the international community. However, Eritrea was soon embroiled in a series of military conflicts, which have largely determined the course of its foreign policy.
In 1995, Eritrea occupied Yemen’s Hanish Islands, in the Red Sea, but in 1996 Isaias Afwerki’s government handed over most of the seized territory back to Yemen in accordance with a decision of a tribunal appointed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, thus demonstrating Eritrea’s commitment to upholding international law. However, the gradual integration of the new, independent Eritrea into the established system of international relations was essentially interrupted by its war with Ethiopia, which reached its height between 1998 and 2000. This conflict, better known as the Border War, had its roots in long-standing ideological tensions dating back to the joint struggle by Eritrean and Tigray rebels against the Derg regime. The final catalyst of the war was the two countries’ territorial disputes over the town of Badme.
Under the Algiers Accords, brokered by the African Union following the Ethiopian army’s successes in December 2020, a special Boundary Commission was established. After two years, the Commission ruled that the disputed area, including the town of Badme, was Eritrean territory. The Ethiopian government’s refusal to comply with the Commission’s ruling, and the unwillingness of the major world powers, including the US, to intervene precipitated a radical change in Eritrea’s conduct in relation to the international community. Disillusioned with the failure of international organizations and the West to support the just resolution of conflicts, the Government of Eritrea has ceased to act with the international community in mind, an approach reflected in both a hardening of its domestic policy and a radicalization of its foreign policy. Over the past 20 years, Eritrea’s status as “international delinquent” has become firmly entrenched. Asmara’s direct and indirect involvement in conflicts in Djibouti, Somalia and Ethiopia, its restrictions on the media and the opposition, the sanctions and, finally, the Eritrean government’s stubborn unwillingness to respect “decency” (at least as this term is defined by liberal democracies, and used in their official discourse) have combined to effectively isolate this East African country and plunge it into international limbo.
In broad terms, Eritrea’s foreign policy from the early 2000s to date has been dominated by three main features: 1) A high level of autonomy in decision-making; 2) A refusal to maintain a semblance of friendliness in its relations with Western countries; 3) Active involvement in the Horn of Africa region, including participation in a number of armed conflicts.
Russia and Eritrea: what do they have in common?
At present, the main area where Russia’s and Eritrea’s views coincide is in relation to the UN discussions concerning the conflict in Ukraine. The UN General Assembly has held 5 votes related in some way or other to this issue since February 24, 2022. Eritrea supported Russia’s position on all 4 occasions when its representative was present for the voting. Nevertheless, the fact that Russia and Eritrea express similar positions within the UN is not, in itself, sufficient justification for strategic or tactical cooperation between the two countries.
Thus, any analysis of the similarities and differences between Russia’s and Eritrea’s long-term goals should begin with the question: do such goals actually exist? While it may at first sight appear absurd, this question is actually very relevant at a time of increasing uncertainty in world politics and the great difficulties involved in developing practical strategies. Clearly, both Russia and Eritrea are, at the very least, concerned to protect their sovereignty and territorial integrity, and, in relation to this goal, one guarantee of success would be provided by preventing any further strengthening of the United States’ status as the world’s sole center of political power. However, this formulation of a long-term goal is too broad to explain why the two countries should cooperate.
To descend from general principles to specifics, we should define a number of specific areas in which the development of an alliance between Russia and Eritrea is most likely to bear fruit: 1) Military cooperation (military-industrial complex, military bases); 2) Cooperation on mining projects (potash, gold, Eritrea’s natural gas deposits). Nevertheless, the extent of economic cooperation between the two countries is still significantly restricted by material factors. For example, the state of Eritrea’s infrastructure, much of which was destroyed in 1998-2000, is a serious problem, but in the current economic climate Russia is scarcely in a position to implement such large-scale projects. It is also important to note that mutual support in international organizations is rather symbolic in nature, and does not affect the existing balance of power between nations.
Moving together, step by step
In view of the uncertainty prevailing in international relations, and the emergence of new challenges and threats, it is impossible for any attempt at a long-term forecast to take into account all the factors that may arise as a result of changing circumstances. It is therefore scarcely possible to formulate practically oriented strategies, and the setting of shared goals tends to be a declarative and ideological step, and thus cannot be seriously considered as a basis for building an alliance. In such circumstances, it is best to prioritize cooperation on practical matters, in particular on military matters and in the field of mining. These areas of activity are suitable for the effective implementation of joint projects, and would undoubtedly play an important role in ensuring Eritrea’s national security as a new ally of the Russian Federation.
Ivan Kopytsev, political scientist and research assistant at the Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.
 J. Young. Peasants and Revolution in Ethiopia: Tigray 1975-1989 // Simon Fraser Uiversity. 1994. P. 226.
 M. Plaut. Understanding Eritrea: Inside Africa’s Most Repressive State // Oxford University Press. 2016. P. 29-31.